Advice is like coleslaw

My lover turns to his old girlfriend for relationship advice even though it hurts my feelings.

By Cary Tennis
Published June 18, 2002 7:04PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

When my fiancé and I have trouble, he goes to his old girlfriend to talk about it. In fairness, he and I discuss our problems. However, when there is a relationship-threatening issue, he withdraws from me and refuses to talk. Then he runs to her. He says they are just good friends now.

In as grown-up and civil a way as I possibly could, considering I am hurt by this, I suggested that perhaps he hoped to gain sympathy from her and rekindle their romance. He denied this. I'd like to believe him, but I'm having some difficulty in the faith department. But I also believe that a man and a woman can have a friendship that is not a romantic and/or sexual relationship as well.

I'm writing to you for an objective opinion and your mom's coleslaw recipe. OK, maybe just the opinion/advice.


Dear Confused,

My mom's coleslaw recipe is kind of bland but very healthy, like my advice sometimes.

It's upsetting when a man returns to his former lover for advice in times of crisis. He should write to me instead. In the meantime, until he sees the error of his ways, one way to cure him of it would be for you to go to his ex-lover for advice as well. Ask her for advice about him. She will be more than happy to give you some. When he finds out, it will screw up his head. Not only will he be afraid to tell her things that might get back to you (the only things worth telling an ex-girlfriend anyway), but the sense of security he finds with her, the comfort of regression, and perhaps even his secret hope for a reunion will disappear. Your scent will be there. It will be like you peed on her tree.

Dear Cary,

I dated this guy for a few months and about a year ago he called it quits by mumbling, "I'm very happy with you but I think that, in the long run, I'd be happier with someone else, so we should not waste our time." I admit this was a first for me (not being dumped, but being dumped that way)! I was devastated for a while but finally put myself back together (sort of). We work in the same office, enjoy the same sports. I'm not exactly sure what was wrong with our dating, but I suspect it has something to do with

  • my religion (I'm in the process of converting to his, but his is as much of an ethnicity as a religion)
  • my age (I'm four years older than him and passed the third decade last year)
  • my opinionated self (I have an excellent memory and just happen to be right quite often; I promise I will work on my attitude)
  • I would like to live in Europe as opposed to the U.S.
  • all of the above

It got more complicated. Since we have the same center of interests we started hanging out quite often. We have for about eight months managed to avoid being each other's "special naked friend." I also have tried somewhat successfully to date other people. The problem is that his behavior tends to draw me back to him: He fills my fridge with my favorite foods when I go on a trip. He wakes up in the middle of the night to come pick me up at the airport even though I assure him I will take a cab. He buys me flowers and gifts. He calls me every day and visits my office several times a day. He hugs me and massages my back. All things considered, he is a fantastic platonic boyfriend. He also will also do things like invite me to a family friend's wedding, and then in the following weeks he will go out on a flurry of first dates with seemingly random women.

I am quite confused by this fellow. Can you make any sense of his actions? Is he feeling bad about breaking up with me and trying to make it up to me? They say women are complicated but ...

Not Complicated ... Compared to Him

Dear Not Complicated,

I can't make any sense out of his actions at all. Perhaps they have no purpose. Perhaps they are random flailings in a sea of desperate testosterone. Or perhaps they are just utterly selfish. They do seem completely unlike any actions one might take to signal a coherent purpose or further some clear plan. Maybe he simply acts on a wide range of impulses without regard for the totality of their meaning. Some guys are like that. They just do things. They don't feel they have to make sense.

To you, however, it probably feels like he's not giving adequate consideration to your role in his fun little life. That's probably what he was trying to tell you when he broke up with you -- that he wasn't planning, or able, to give you that consideration, to act coherently, to make sense, to snap out of it. And now, since he's given you notice, he probably feels that he has no more obligation to you to behave in ways that are pleasing, or even comprehensible. In the war game that is love, he has won. You have zero leverage. He can do whatever he pleases.

Would you prefer a guy whose actions make sense? Find a guy like that. It's not enough for a guy to do things that sort of make it seem like he likes you, if all it does is drive you crazy.

Dear Cary,

How do I learn to maintain a normal life when, in fact, I'm an absolute wreck? A year ago February my mom died, and a month ago, my once sweet relationship ended. (I'm 28.) My boyfriend couldn't deal with the tectonic shift in my emotional makeup. He stopped being kind and thoughtful, didn't want to be leaned on, and I put up with a lot while waiting for him to go back to how he used to be. Or maybe how I thought he was. And in the meantime I cried and cried and cried, which he handled badly.

On the outside I have a promising career and swell friends and good grades in law school and a publication agreement for a paper. I have a nice dog, can paint and play the piano. Objectively, I don't have anything to complain about. But on the inside I am at sea and so lonely it's hardly bearable. My dad turns 70 this summer, which makes me think morbidly of having no more family. (I have a sister but can't rely on her to be nice.) When I spend time alone, like weekends, it's all I can do to hold myself together. I've cried on sidewalks, on airplanes, in libraries and museums and gardens and coffee shops. It's rather embarrassing, not to mention miserable. Yes, I'm in therapy and have no history of depression.

I sort of want to branch out and meet some new people, but I feel it's almost irresponsible to introduce myself to anyone, since I'm liable to cry answering a routine personal question. I'm OK when I'm acting sort of friendly and "up." But that's exhausting and misleading. And anyway most people seem to be looking for a good time, which I can't really offer.

So. I'm pretty sick and tired of myself. What's my next move? I keep thinking this weather will break, but the forecast does not look good.

Sensitive San Francisco Girl

Dear San Francisco Girl,

You've had some tough blows and you have a right to be sad: Your mother died a year ago. That is huge. And at the time when you needed him, your boyfriend abandoned you emotionally. That is not only huge but heinous. And you're seeing signs that your father is aging, which hints at the frightening truth of mortality and threatens further abandonment. Anyone would be grieving and experiencing deep, terrifying loneliness. Your feelings seem quite appropriate.

But there are also clues in your letter that your orientation to life may have left you, more than others, particularly susceptible to the surprising brutality of these emotions. You say that "objectively" you have nothing to complain about, and you refer to law school and playing the piano, and you refer to lonely weekends. This is only conjecture, but if you are an introverted, thinking, judging type, these blows may be particularly hard for you for a number of reasons. If you are introverted and thinking, your bond with your mother may have been one of the few deep emotional, feeling-based relationships in your life. And you may find it hard to forge such bonds.

Your boyfriend may also be a strongly thinking type, which would account for his backing away from your emotional turmoil. (That's so sad; if only he could see it intellectually, in moral or ethical terms instead of emotional ones, he might understand what a terrible thing he has done to abandon you at such a time.) And, if you are a judging type, it was probably a clean unambiguous break, leaving little time for the kind of interim support a more gradual separation might have provided.

Studying law, painting and playing the piano can be intensely logical and solitary activities; they don't have to be, but for someone inclined to solitude and rigorous thought, they can hold out the promise of some sort of solace in times of grief. But it is not the kind of solace you need. You have been hurt by a loss of people. You need some human warmth and support -- and not the harsh, reasoning support of law students, but a more unconditional emotional support, the kind of support you perhaps got from your mother when she was alive.

Other things you say are similarly telling. For instance, you refer to being OK when you are "acting sort of friendly and 'up,'" but say, "that's exhausting and misleading." That is truer than you perhaps realize. If you are strongly introverted, acting outgoing is taxing and unnatural -- and it offends your loyalty to the inner logic of your own emotional life. Unfortunately, you may feel you must do that in order to be in human company and find new friends, because you have been abandoned by those you depended on. Add to that you sister's apparent lack of sympathy and you paint a picture of isolated bereavement. No wonder you're breaking down in public.

But you, more than most, have the capacity to understand your situation and distribute your energy according to your needs. The terminology I am using comes from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator; it's something I've found extremely useful at times. If your therapist can help you identify and understand your type, I think you would benefit greatly. If he or she can't, or won't, I suggest you undertake a study of your type on your own. It's not that the inner logic holding the world together has broken down; it's just that you've encountered a series of extremely tough blows that you may be particularly susceptible to. Once you understand your fundamental strengths and weaknesses a little better, I think you will get through this and flourish.

Dear Cary,

There is a girl in my life who I have known for seven years and have been crazy about since the day I met her. Everything about her drives me wild, but there are a couple of issues that contribute to my reluctance to confess my feelings to her.

Here are the issues:

  1. I'm somewhat of a player, and we have the same group of friends. So obviously she knows this. Ethically I don't really agree with my sex life, but I'm a lush and don't have any willpower. Nonetheless there is no excuse for my behavior. Another part of this is that she is very attractive. So she has all types of playin' smooth-talkin' game-spitting heartbreakers hounding her (I think I fit into her definition of the above). Although my feelings for her are of the deepest sincerity, and sex isn't the first thing on my mind, I fear if I tell her about my feelings she will think that I'm another one of those guys.
  2. Her ex-boyfriend, a very good friend of mine, has some major coping issues. They haven't been together for three years, but despite that, I know that he will hold an extreme amount of contempt for me. He is a very dear friend and I don't want to lose that friendship.

Should I confess and betray my friend? Should I hold back and move on? They say that there's other fish in the sea, but she's the catch of the day.

Indecisive Putz

Dear Indecisive Putz,

I think you stay away from her and broaden your dating field. Right now, you've got a good friend and you're on good terms with this girl. If you go out with her, you're going to damage your relationship with your friend, for starters. And because you drink too much and have no self-control, you're going to be unfaithful to her and damage your friendship with her as well. So very quickly, instead of two pleasant and supportive relationships, you'll have two bitter, hurt people who used to be your friends and now want nothing to do with you. So be smart. Widen your circle of acquaintances. Get out of your neighborhood and find some new girls.

Perhaps this one will eventually marry the best-looking or most promising of the guys who are hounding her. Or perhaps she'll leave your circle altogether for a new life in another city. Either way, if you play it smart, you and she will always be on friendly terms, and you can look at her all you like.

Dear Cary,

I gotta ask. Do you think all of this talk about love in your column is for real? I have to be honest and say that I think it's not, and reading your column often fills me with bittersweet humor with stories of what people are willing to do for what they call love.

Does anybody really think about this stuff? What is love anyways? I don't care so much what the answer is, but about whether or not you have thought about it. Is the swimming head feeling of early romance just hormones, or is it some force of nature? What happens when it goes away?

It seems to me that love is something that you do, and not something that happens to you. It also seems irresponsible to not fill in your teeming millions to this fact. I know you would probably be out of a job if you thought love didn't exist, but come on. What do you really think?

Probing Thinker

P.S. Love the column. I think you do great work.

Dear Probing Thinker,

Don't probe too hard. You might break something. Wow. What questions. What do I think? Oh, sheesh. I am not cynical. I am a believer in miracles, happiness and true love. But I am not living in the 12th century. I know that the medium through which the miraculous occurs is a machine of flesh, blood and bone controlled by chemically triggered electrical impulses. I know that experiences the organism has can be imprinted in its memory banks and reactivated by stimuli, despite whatever the organism "thinks" it "wants." I know that we are a lot like dogs. I know there's money to be made telling people what they want to hear, triggering pleasant but trivial electrical impulses in the meatbags of consumers. But I also know that people seek out the truth like medicine because they know it can stop the pain. It stings at first but it takes the ache away.

Perhaps what you are saying is that most people don't think too hard. I have noticed that, too. But I don't hold it against them. Thinking hurts, and if you don't have to do it, why would you? Some of us of course, for whatever reason, can't have any ice cream until we've thought it through. I'm not sure it makes the ice cream taste any better, but it's the way we are. At least we eventually get the ice cream.

As to love, gee, I think the "swimming head feeling of early romance" is a good indicator that a happy relationship is a possibility, but it's certainly not infallible, and it's certainly not love. I like your term better; it's the swimming head feeling.

And I agree that love is an action, but love is also a brand. In the marketplace of emotions, it is a very high-quality brand indeed, up there with the Ferrari and the Gibson guitar, whose imitators are legion. There are so many knockoffs, in fact, that it has become impossible to determine with certainty what is genuine love and what is a knockoff. And since there is no central manufacturer of love, it is impossible to control the process. I think you will know only when you feel the genuine leather seats and hear the rich, warm sustain.

Cary Tennis

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